The hockey season is almost over, but most teams are showing no sign of slowing down as several of them—in both action-packed conferences—are still fighting for a place in the post-season.
This year has been anything but boring in the hockey world.
There were things to be expected: the always dangerous Red Wings rising to the top of their conference; the resurgent Sharks rebounding with force after a surprising exit last post-season; the offensively-strong Capitals rewriting themselves as a top-flight team.
There were also disappointments: the Senators, two years removed from the SC final and having nothing to show for it (minus a recent surge); the Canadiens having nothing to celebrate about except turning a year older; the Dallas Stars still plagued by numerous injuries...
And then there have been the pleasant surprises. The New Jersey Devils rising to the top of their division despite missing All-Star Brodeur for a big part of the season.
My favorite? The Columbus Blue Jackets with a chance to finally make their mark in the post-season.
It's an interesting tale, all in all, albeit one with a few bumps and bruises along the way. The Jackets entered the league in 2001, the same year hockey returned to Minnesota in the form of the Wild.
The Wild, as we all know, have had a lot more luck since then, making it to the post-season a few times already. Columbus, on the other hand, did not make the playoffs once in those seven years.
This year, Minnesota is in 10th place, three points out of the playoffs with only three games left. No one's going to write them out yet, but it's not looking good for the Wild. As for the Jackets, it's sixth place city. However, they haven't clinched a spot yet, with also three games in hand.
What happened this year? Was it captain Rick Nash with his energetic play night after night? A few interesting signings and trades, such as Philadelphia native RJ Umberger making his mark already? Solid defensive play by the Jackets, as always?
Maybe it was rookie goalie Steve Mason with his 10 shutouts, 2.22 GAG and .918 save percentage? It's not all Mason, all the time, but it's certainly a big part of it.
In his first full season in the NHL, Mason already has 32 wins. That's only two shy of probable Vezina winner Tim Thomas.
Right now, Steve Mason's play is synonymous with the Columbus Blue Jackets' chances in the post-season. And considering it's their first year participating in the post-season since the birth of their franchise, it's a pretty big deal.
Steve Mason will win the Calder Memorial trophy at the end of the season, I guarantee it.
Why? Think about it.
Mason edged Pascal Leclaire—the second first-round draft pick only in their history - as the Jackets' starting goaltender. With Leclaire the best thing the team could hope for was a top-five draft pick (no offense to Leclaire. And, to his credit, he did show much improvement last year). Pretty far from what they're aspiring to this year.
I remember reading an article about Leclaire and the Jackets and how he was part of their process of building a solid team. That was recently. Where is Leclaire now? Yep. In Ottawa.
Mason is an "aw shucks", all-around Canadian boy. He's only 20. The kind of player kids aspire to be in those Tim Horton's commercials. People love that.
Mason also leads the league in shutouts and, while we can all point out Brodeur's absence for most of the season, it's still no small feat. Hell, were it not for a late Kris Versteeg goal yesterday in the Jackets game vs. the Blackhawks, Mason could've had his 11th shutout.
Marc-André Fleury, a long time No. 1 goalie, had 11 shutouts through his first four seasons. And I love Fleury, don't get me wrong.
People will argue that Pekka Rinne has been just as effective, if not more for the resurgent Nashville Predators and it's hard to argue with that. But Mason will win the Calder this year. He just will.
Will Columbus make the playoffs this year? It's still too early to be certain, but it is very probable. Will they win a series? Maybe, depending on who they're facing (somehow, I can see the Jackets stealing a round from the uneven Red Wings, but struggling against the energetic Canucks).
Will they win the Cup? Meh. It's doubtful.
But you can be sure Steve Mason is not leaving this summer empty-handed.